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Putin's Fans In The West Need To Take A Cold Shower

Recent gains in Russia's sphere of influence are more the result of US and Western complacency than Putin’s omnipotence.

25/01/2017 5:55 AM AEDT | Updated 25/01/2017 6:01 AM AEDT
RIA Novosti / Reuters
"For Putin’s loyal fan club in Australia and elsewhere, the reality of the damage he has done to his own country cannot be ignored."

Of the many unexpected events in 2016, the flourishing of a large and passionate Vladimir Putin fan club across the Western world was one of the most bizarre.

Inspired by the the US President's embrace of the 'very smart' Russian leader, these sympathisers are most common in Trump's America. But in Australia, panel show provocateurs now revel in the 'victories' of Putin's Russia over a fumbling and distracted Obama administration.

Moscow's tempered riposte to the US' expulsion of 35 its DC-based diplomats late last year was even labeled a 'masterstroke'.

But Putin fans in the West need a cold shower. We are not witnessing the rise of a new age of Russian supremacy: quite the opposite. Russia's recent bellicosity is no more than the desperate gasp for air of a bygone empire rapidly sinking under the weight of its own economic mismanagement.

It is easy to conclude that Russia is 'back'. But recent gains in its own sphere of influence are more the result of US and Western complacency than Putin's omnipotence.

You could argue that it's intervention in Ukraine in 2014 was a strategic win for Moscow. But it also opened the door to the heavy US sanctions which have seriously damaged the Russian economy, undermining Russia's credibility as a major economic force.

And while Putin's involvement in the recently brokered Syrian ceasefire demonstrates an ability to influence events in Russia's orbit, Syria has long been within Russia's sphere of influence, and a key ally that Putin has maintained Moscow's stake over Syria's future is not a new development, just a continuation of the status quo.

These actions do not signify a new era of Russian dominance on the international stage. Instead, they aim to distract from the fault lines within Russia's economy and society that will soon demand attention if the country is to have any chance of maintaining long-term stability.

Putin's tenure as Russian leader, effectively unbroken since 2000, has been one of only mixed success.

His first decade was marked by high economic growth that was widely praised. But this was just a mirage -- an economic boom made possible by inflated commodity prices.

Instead of investing that sugar-hit in the Russian people, Putin concentrated on an egotistical inflation of Russia's international standing. Having been humiliated by the decline of Moscow's global influence in the 1990s, Putin's presidency has been more about demanding Russia's legitimacy as a great power than about ensuring a better future for everyday Russians.

The GFC, and the subsequent collapse in oil and resource prices proved the economic gains of the first Putin decade to be illusory.

Putin's tenure as Russian leader, effectively unbroken since 2000, has been one of only mixed success.

Putin, in effect, wasted a decade of economic fortune, failing to direct the spoils towards the long-term benefit of his people. Now, living standards are down and unemployment is up. The Ruble is in tatters. And the decline of Moscow's ability to entice countries in its neighbourhood to further integrate with Russia's fragile economy has undermined its long-term global standing.

Far from being a strategic genius, Putin's first 15 years at the helm led his country into dire straits. But then 2016 happened.

The last year has seen an unimaginable stroke of luck for Putin. In 2016, it felt as though Russia has almost pulled off a 'Stephen Bradbury', sliding from behind a set of falling and distracted major powers, all tripping over each other's misfortune, to emerge in front at the end of some grand political game.

Brexit, and the general uncertainty of the future of European integration, has been a coup for Russia. Brussels will now spend the next few years focusing on keeping the European show on the road rather than engaging heavily in a geopolitical wrestle with Moscow.

2016 only gave Russia time, and did not solve the plethora of domestic challenges facing the country that will soon demand Moscow's undivided attention.

And the US election has let Putin momentarily off the hook. Trump has helped legitimise the false-narrative of an all-powerful Putin, and given Moscow a few years' breathing space while it figures out how to escape the economic quagmire in which it is entrenched.

But in reality, 2016 only gave Russia time, and did not solve the plethora of domestic challenges facing the country that will soon demand Moscow's undivided attention.

Russia is a country the West should uniformly keep in check, and is still a capable, nuclear power -- but it is not a great power. For Putin's loyal fan club in Australia and elsewhere, the reality of the damage he has done to his own country cannot be ignored.

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